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St. Petersburg's police pursuit policy emboldens criminals, police unions say

ST. PETERSBURG — Every time officers draw their weapons, they're making a life-or-death decision.

Engaging in high-speed pursuits is no different.

Police can use their cars to chase and ram fleeing suspects off the road. They're some of the most dangerous — and most debated — of police tactics because they put officers and the public at risk.

In St. Petersburg, officers can chase those suspected of violent crimes — but not car thieves or burglars. It is one of the most restrictive chase policies in Tampa Bay area law enforcement.

The city's police unions have long complained that the policy handcuffs officers and emboldens criminals, pointing to St. Petersburg's skyrocketing auto theft rates.

Police Chief Chuck Harmon, though, has held firm, saying some crimes aren't worth the risk to lives.

But after 16 years, that's about to change. The new mayor promised a more aggressive chase policy on the campaign trail.

Now Bill Foster appears poised to deliver.

Mayor, chief come together on policy

Harmon said he and Foster have reached a "compromise" on a new chase policy, but he wouldn't say what it was.

They plan to unveil it Wednesday at an invitation-only community retreat. There, the two will talk about changes to the chase policy and other public safety initiatives.

The current chase policy allows officers to pursue people suspected of crimes like murder and robbery, or those fleeing a crash that resulted in death or serious injury. They still must weigh the hazards against the need to capture the suspect.

Harmon was a sergeant when the policy was drafted in 1994. Since he became chief in 2001, no one has fought harder to limit pursuits. So after years of fighting the unions, why relent?

The chief said it was because Foster was open to his suggestions as the new policy was molded.

"He's willing to change his mind if a valid argument is presented to him," Harmon said. "That's one of the reasons I'm still here."

Police union leaders: Criminals don't fear us

St. Petersburg Detective Mark Marland is president of the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association. Sgt. Karl Lounge is vice president of the Pinellas County Fraternal Order of Police. Frequent critics of the chief's policies, they've long pushed to change the pursuit policy.

The problem, they say, is that savvy criminals understand the policy all too well. If car thieves, burglars, drunks and speeders don't pull over, then police can't chase them down.

"You can't empower the criminal," Marland said. "You have to take the criminal out of play by doing whatever's needed."

In 2009, the city's reported vehicle thefts more than doubled — there were 2,257 thefts, up 55 percent — from the year before.

The spike pushed the overall crime rate up 9 percent last year, ending a five-year decline.

Harmon said St. Petersburg police cracked down on car thieves in 2008 using old fashioned police work. After corralling the city's worst juvenile thieves, vehicle thefts dropped 37 percent.

They climbed back up in 2009, Harmon said, because the legal system failed to keep those offenders in check — not because his officers can't chase them.

Instead of rules, more leeway for officers

There are limits to how far police can go to chase even the worst criminals: Is it midday or late at night? Is there heavy vehicle or pedestrian traffic? Is it a neighborhood block or a commercial area? What are weather, road and lighting conditions?

The unions know this. All they want, leaders say, is for officers and commanders on the street to be able to weigh those limits themselves, not rely on a blanket policy.

"No one wants a carte blanche policy that puts the public at risk," Lounge said. "I wouldn't be as prone to allow a chase to go on in the middle of the day for an auto thief as I would at 4 in the morning."

Union leaders say they favor the policy used in Tampa. There, officers can chase violent criminals, car thieves and burglars.

University of South Carolina criminal justice professor Geoffrey Alpert has studied the issue ever since municipalities first awoke to the collateral damage of such pursuits in the 1980s.

"Those that are changing are becoming more restrictive," Alpert said. "This would be bucking the trend and I think it would be a mistake."

Tampa Bay endured a deadly decade of pursuits when 20 people were killed in high-speed chases from 1993 to 2002.

In the 1990s, Tampa and Hillsborough leaders had to defend their pliant chase policies in the face of a few high-profile deaths involving juvenile car thieves and innocent bystanders. Those policies have grown stricter, but still permit chasing stolen cars.

There's also a financial risk.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that law enforcement agencies are liable for their pursuits. The case stems from an infamous 1984 Pinellas County chase. Three agencies chased a mentally ill suspect until he crashed into two sisters from Palm Harbor at 100 mph. Susan Brown, 23, and Judy Brown, 20, both died.

Another pursuit led Indian Rocks Beach to disband its police force in 1993. They chased a drunken driver who ended up smashing into Michelle Elstro, 21, killing the Largo woman.

An investigation later found the officers violated pursuit rules and one may have lied about his actions during the chase.

Chases are risky; so are the alternatives

Police have other options for catching car thieves, said Alpert, the criminal justice professor.

In New Jersey, for example, a specialized unit uses a helicopter and license plate scanner to locate the cars, then boxes them in with reinforced SUVs.

The city's police unions hope to eventually be given latitude to use other methods — like using cruisers to block fleeing vehicles.

Other agencies use them, but in St. Petersburg, only specialized units can.

One tactic Harmon said he will consider is using spiked sticks to puncture tires. Other agencies use them, but the chief thought they were too dangerous for his officers to use.

There's a reason why he has always resisted such tactics and why the pursuit policy is as conservative as it is, Harmon said.

"If I really thought it had an impact on crime," he said. "I would have considered changing it a long time ago."

St. Petersburg's police pursuit policy emboldens criminals, police unions say 02/12/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 13, 2010 12:32am]
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